Documentary Review: Ken Burns: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009)

Release Date: September 27th, 2009 – October 2nd, 2009
Directed by: Ken Burns
Music by: various

PBS, 720 Minutes (6 episodes)

Review:

*Written in 2015.

After being enthralled by Ken Burns: Baseball, I will watch anything that this guy creates.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a pretty inspiring piece of work and arguably a masterpiece. If you are familiar with Ken Burns’ directing style, you can expect more of the same. However, with the wonderful presentation, the fantastic narration and just the scope and beauty of the subject matter, this documentary is truly a sight to behold and an enchanting foray into almost endless and unfathomable beauty.

For a guy who likes the outdoors much more than the indoors, this motivated me to give an even bigger shit than I do now about conservation and the importance of our parks, not just National but all parks. It also put into perspective how amazing America is as far as natural wonders. In this country, we are literally sitting on a nature goldmine.

This series is broken into six episodes roughly two hours each, give or take a few minutes. Each part goes through different eras of the National Park System from the beginning up to modern times. Each part is thoroughly engaging and packed with more information than anyone could anticipate. Each part is also sprinkled with guest narrations from several recognizable voices, my favorite of all to pop up is Tom Hanks, who presented his lines majestically.

I love this documentary series. Ken Burns really outdid himself and PBS needs to always give him a platform to display his artistic and informative creations.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Other Ken Burns documentary series.

Book Review: ‘Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere – Alive’ by Les Stroud

If you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel show Survivorman, you should know who Les Stroud is. He is, in my opinion, the best survival expert in the world today. His show was always the most realistic, most practical and wasn’t full of staged bullshit for dramatic effect. What you saw with Stroud is what you got, which is the same with this book.

Survive! follows the tradition of Stroud being the best, as it is the best book on survival that I have read. Take my word for it, I’ve read quite a bit throughout the years.

Stroud covers pretty much everything you need to know. If you have watched his show, you should be familiar with most of what is discussed in this book. However, unlike his television series, the book is able to go into greater detail on every subject and skill that you should understand and master.

From a writing standpoint, Stroud puts a lot of himself into his words and his personality comes through in the book, which just adds to the awesomeness of the experience. He also comments on several misconceptions and some of the bullshit survival tactics put out there by other survival “experts” who are just trying to make shocking television while selling survival gear with their own name brand on it.

Les Stroud cuts through the crap and gets right down to business, which in a survival situation, is what one needs. So put down the elephant poop cocktail and delve into something far less gross and more realistic.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: Other books by Les Stroud.

Documentary Review: Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch (2014)

Release Date: April 16th, 2014
Directed by: David Allen
Cast: Joe Hutto

Rubin Tarrant Productions, 52 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2014.

Touching the Wild was a pretty stellar installment of PBS’ Nature series. In fact, it is now one of my favorite episodes of all-time in this show’s 30-plus year run.

It follows Joe Hutto as he lives with the mule deer of the Deadman Gulch area of Colorado. It chronicles how he gained their trust over years and became a part of their lives, families and societal structure.

Man, this was a pretty emotional documentary. It is hard not to get swept up in the feelings Joe conveys throughout this 52 minute film. And what is great about this documentary is that it just features Joe, telling his story, telling the story of all the deer and how it has effected him every step of the way.

From a science standpoint, Touching the Wild is pretty profound in that it delves deep into mule deer behavior, their way of life and shows a more intimate and up-close view than what has ever been seen before.

Deer are pretty private creatures that want nothing to do with humans. This shows how close a man can get however and it blurs the line between species – showing the true nature of these animals, their heart, their ability to trust and their ability to treat something unlike them, as one of their own.

And this is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other installments of PBS’ Nature series.

Book Review: ‘My First Summer In the Sierra’ by John Muir

If you don’t know who John Muir is, you might not be American.

Wikipedia describes Muir as a “naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States.” He was more than that however and in fact, he was instrumental in starting what became the National Parks system, which also led to state parks as well.

John Muir wrote a lot, especially about his experiences discovering new and uncharted wilderness. Being completely blown away, mesmerized and inspired by the Sierra Mountains and the Yosemite area, he wrote about that experience in this book.

The best way to describe his words is picturesque. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words but Muir, having been immersed in the real wilderness of that region, gave us something more intimate than a simple picture and much more than a thousand words to describe the awe in his heart.

Referring to this book as “beautifully written” would be an understatement. Between his words and his sketches, Muir paints an epic landscape and gives us some of the most thoughtfully descriptive writing ever put to paper.

I haven’t read anywhere near enough of Muir’s work. This book has inspired me to delve deeper into his hefty catalog.

This book is a good place to start if you truly want to wrap yourself in Muir’s majestic words.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Other writings by John Muir

Book Review: ‘Man Up!: 367 Classic Skills for the Modern Guy’ by Paul O’Donnell

Man Up! is a pretty cool book. For one thing, out of the 367 skills, there is certainly a lot of stuff for every guy to learn. I don’t care who you are, there’s new skills in here for everyone. Now whether each “how to” is the best way to accomplish these tasks would have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and since there’s 367 of them, I don’t have that sort of time.

Regardless, the book is pretty thorough for as many skills as it runs through. And after reading through them all, everything seems pretty straightforward and pretty kosher.

It isn’t a massive book but it is a decent size. The sections are well organized and similar things are categorized together. The illustrations are well done and add to the helpful nature of the book.

I enjoyed Man Up! quite a bit.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: The books put out by The Art of Manliness.

Documentary Review: Ken Burns Presents: The West (1996)

Release Date: September 15th, 1996 – September 22nd, 1996
Directed by: Steve Ives
Music by: Matthias Gohl

PBS, 537 Minutes (8 episodes)

Review:

Ken Burns makes the best documentaries for television, in my opinion. So his take on the Old West was pretty compelling, enjoyable and informative. Granted, he just produced this one and wasn’t a writer on it or the director.

The director is Steve Ives, who presented The West in the same style and format as Ken Burns’ other documentaries. It is full of a lot to sink your teeth into and for a big fan of the Old West and American history, there is a lot in this epic series that a viewer might not know.

Like most of the documentaries with Burns’ name on them, this one is in multiple parts of one-to-two hour films. Each one focuses on a theme and a different era.

The interviews, the photos and all the other material used to piece this thing together are top notch.

One thing that is absolutely exceptional about this series is the music and that majestic opening theme.

If you have seen a Ken Burns documentary, you already know what to expect. If you haven’t seen one, strap in for a long, epic tale with more information and stories than should be able to fit in a 9 hour running time. Yes, there is that much here to digest.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Anything by Ken Burns.

Book Review: ‘Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades’ by Laura A. Ogden

Being a native Floridian who has grown up on the edge of the Everglades, I found the subject matter in this book to be quite compelling.

Swamplife was more than just “pretty interesting”. I ended up reading it over the course of two days because it was hard to put down.

Between the tales of the infamous Ashley Gang and reading about what life was like for the people of the Everglades before everyone else moved down here, I was thoroughly engaged.

Anthropology has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed but never have I come across a book that was just about the area I grew up in, at least nothing this specific.

Swamplife really covered a lot in 200 pages and I was impressed with not just the quantity of information but also the quality.

If anyone is interested in reading about the original South Floridians and how they tamed one of the harshest environments in the world and found a way to survive and thrive in it, this is definitely a book worth your time.

Rating: 7.25/10

Documentary Review: Happy People: A Year In the Taiga (2010)

Release Date: September, 2010 (Telluride Film Festival)
Directed by: Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov
Music by: Klaus Badelt
Narrated by: Werner Herzog

Studio Babelsberg, 90 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

Happy People: A Year In the Taiga is a documentary by Werner Herzog that follows the people living in the village of Bakhtia along the Yenisei River in the Siberian Taiga. It mostly focuses on trappers but follows others with different occupations that help contribute to the overall well-being of all the people within their small community. The documentary also gives some insight into the lives of the native Ket people from that region.

The film goes on to show a way of life that hasn’t changed in over a century. Other than having a few machines to make life a bit easier, the people of Bakhtia still exist in virtually the same way that they always have. It is a unique and simple way of life that is not only hard but extreme for those of us looking through our television sets. To those of us in the first world, it is something so foreign and seemingly archaic. But one can’t not respect the lives of these tough people, who really are the hardest and most badass beings on this planet.

While the footage was originally filmed by Dmitry Vasyukov for a television film he made. The footage was re-edited and narrated by Wener Herzog for this more fleshed out theatrical version.

This film was pretty great to watch. It was slow at times but it was never boring, as it gave one a direct and intimate view of these people. Their words and advice on life, through their experience living in such harsh conditions, was fascinating. It was a thoroughly engaging film that I was pulled into from the start.

Herzog’s narration was enjoyable. From his deadpan humor and his awesome German accent, he kept the scenes moving and helped weave this wonderful tale. Furthermore, his re-editing of the material was well done. This is now one of my favorite Herzog documentaries.

I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to watch some tough men doing tough shit, living in tough conditions against the odds. While this life is somewhat romanticized in the film, it did make me yearn for a simpler time when there was less materialism and life was pretty straightforward. Granted, I’d never want to have to weather these insane conditions.

Rating: 6.75/10

Documentary Review: Blackfish (2013)

Release Date: January 19th, 2013 (Sundance)
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Music by: Jeff Beal

CNN Films, Manny O. Productions, Magnolia Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2015.

I finally got around to watching the film Blackfish. It isn’t that I was in denial or something about SeaWorld and other oceanic theme parks questionable treatment of animals, as I have been aware of this stuff for quite some time. I simply put it off because I knew what I was going to get before I got it.

The film was well done and well presented. The interviews with ex-trainers who worked for Sea World added credence to this documentary’s claims and message. Sure, every documentary ever made has its own agenda but regardless of how you feel about either side of the coin in regards to the treatment of performance animals, in this case – killer whales, you can’t deny the fact that they don’t have much free will and that living an unnatural life is probably going to create some stress for the animals.

Now Sea World didn’t participate in the documentary, as they knew what the agenda was here. They have however rebutted with a website of their own that gives their position on things spoken about within the film, as well as examples within the film that they find untrue or misleading. That website is here and if you have a strong opinion about Sea World but haven’t read their side, you should.

Point being, it is very easy to get emotionally invested in this film – I was. However, you have to know that it is creating a narrative and has a specific purpose for existing. Most documentaries are propaganda of some form. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t just attach yourself wholeheartedly to one side of the argument, without listening to the other side. Critical thinking, y’all.

Now I am not taking Sea World’s side, as I think forcing animals to perform for people in this sort of capacity is something that we as a soceity need to evolve beyond. I have no problem however with Sea World helping animals in need and for all the contributions they give to these causes. However, I am aware that in this day and age, the way for Sea World to make money in the first place, is by putting these animals on display. So what’s the right answer?

But this is a film review, not a political discussion.

In the end, Blackfish told its argument well and I can see where this will be damaging to Sea World. Does it mean that what they said or in most cases implied was factual? Not necessarily. Regardless, the point got across and this documentary achieved what it was trying to achieve.

Rating: 6.5/10